Debate No. 3: Romney takes foreign policy off the table

Perilli-Debate-3

by John Perilli

If President Barack Obama was looking to distance himself from Mitt Romney on foreign policy during Monday night’s debate, he would have left the stage feeling disappointed. Aside from a strong debate performance, where he stood tall on all the major international issues from Israel to China, Obama could not seem to get away from Romney. Early on, Romney neutralized one of Obama’s strongest foreign policy talking points by congratulating him on going after Osama bin Laden. There was a brief back and forth over who would move “heaven and earth” to take out the infamous al Qaeda commander, but Obama was left without a decisive point scored.

Later, Romney matched Obama again when the debate moved to Israel and Iran. The two candidates bickered over the fineries of sanctioning Iran, as well as whether an attack on Israel was an attack on the US, but again both of them came out on even footing.

Obama wasn’t done yet, though — he still had his plans for Afghanistan to discuss. Given Romney’s previous remarks about how he would have kept transitional troops in Iraq, Obama seemed ready to pivot and play dove to his advantage. Fortunately for Romney, though, he agreed with Obama’s policy to draw down troops in Afghanistan by 2014, ruining another chance for Obama to pull war-weary voters into his camp.

This all seemed part of an overall plan by Romney to just clinch and hold on whenever Obama put any experiential weight behind his foreign policy punches. International affairs, especially national defense, has long been a core issue for the Republican Party, but in the last four years, their grip has weakened. Obama’s careful handling of the Libyan conflict, his decision to withdraw from Iraq, and, of course, his order to take out Osama bin Laden have given Democrats much more credibility on matters abroad. Romney realizes this and tried to steer the discussion to the economy, an issue too complex to be seized by one party or the other.

The one area where Romney looked weak was military spending. With one of the most memorable zingers of any debate, Obama responded to Romney’s claim that the US Navy has fewer ships than in 1916 by countering that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Brilliantly, Obama used humor to highlight a sensitive truth: Smaller armed forces aren’t necessarily less effective. Obama did an excellent job appearing in touch and sympathetic on the defense spending issue, whereas Romney’s message came across as blunt and hawkish.

Conversely, Obama was left wide open with a pointed question on the Benghazi affair in Libya, which ended with the first death of a US Ambassador in the line of duty since 1979. Miscommunication between the State Department and the military is not a new problem, and it once again came back to haunt an administration that may not have taken all possible cautionary measures. Obama was able to defend and keep himself from being put in an early hole, but Romney clearly had the upper hand on this question.

On the whole, Obama used his experience as commander-in-chief to earn a solid victory in this debate, but if he hoped to make foreign policy an issue fresh in voters’ minds as they went to the polls, he will not be satisfied with his performance Monday night. Repeatedly, polls have made it clear that voters care most about the economy. By matching Obama on foreign policy and talking about fiscal issues, Romney took international matters off the table for swing voters. There may have been some strong points for each candidate that locked in the decisions of a few concerned individuals, but most people will vote on the economy, which is just the way Romney wants it.